In modern American Christianity, one of the greatest needs that is facing the American Church is the need to reach the lost and bring the Gospel to those who will never enter a church building. The Great Commission is a commission to "go into the world." Many different statistics done by people like George Barna and organizations like LifeWay, show that evangelism (the practice of Christians sharing the Gospel with non-Christians) in the United States is moving towards a rapid decline. They also reveal that the majority of America will be unchurched in the coming decades if the trends continue.
There are many different perspectives and strategies for evangelism, however, I am going to discuss one of the biggest issues that is keeping the American Church from being able to properly affect those who are outside of the Church.
I would argue that there are two prominent camps concerning evangelism in the church today. One camp promotes "Spontaneous Evangelism" and the other camp promotes "Relational Evangelism." Sadly, they are often pitted against one another.
Spontaneous Evangelism can be defined as evangelistic encounters with random people. Some examples include the following: a person you share the Gospel with at a grocery store, someone you give a Gospel tract to, a person you strike up conversation with in a waiting room with the purpose of sharing with them about Christ, etc. Usually, Spontaneous Evangelism is done with people you will very likely never see again. It places the emphasis on getting to the heart of the Gospel message as quickly as possible with the person in front of you. However, it places little emphasis on building relationships and following up with people.
Relational Evangelism is completely different. It is done with people that you know and see on a consistent basis. Some examples include, co-workers, extended family, neighbors, people from the gym, etc. Relational evangelism places the emphasis on building relationships before engaging with someone concerning the content of the Gospel. Over time, the Gospel message may be brought up as the relationship grows. The end goal of this type of evangelism is helping a person gain a relationship with Christ over time through long-term relationship.
Both are good strategies, but both are incomplete on their own. Sadly, many Christians feel they must choose one or the other. It is a major failure of modern American Christianity that the two are pitted against each other, Each side needs what the other one has, and the most effective evangelism can only be done when the strengths from both sides are incorporated.
When we look at the ministry of Jesus, He perfectly balanced both. He made disciples over a long period of time, but He also had spontaneous encounters with people like the "woman at the well," Zacchaeus, and those whom He healed and delivered throughout his ministry. In each type of encounter, lives were totally transformed by His love and truth. In the same way, God wants us to allow the Holy Spirit to use us spontaneously and relationally so that He can totally transform the lives of those we minister to with His love and truth.
God is calling every single believer to allow Him to use them to reach the lost with the Gospel. It is not for only a few, it is not for only ministers, and it is not for only those that seem to excel in it, or, those that appear to be "naturally gifted." The Great Commission was a command to each believer to "Go into the World," "Preach the Gospel," and to "Make Disciples."
If a person is only open to God using them to do relational evangelism, they will likely fall into having no outward witness of their faith in their day to day life. It can lead people to a mindset that places 100% focus on only the 4-8 people that they are trying to build relationship with and an extreme reclusiveness towards anyone else. That means that if it takes 2-3 years to help 4-6 people come to Christ and be discipled, anyone else that God wanted reached evangelistically normally will get bypassed.
On the other hand, if a person is only open to God using them to do Spontaneous Evangelism, they will likely fall into never attempting to fulfill the mandate to "make disciples" which goes beyond just "preaching the Gospel." People that only embrace a spontaneous approach often are very open about sharing the Gospel with random people that they will likely never see again. However, they often miss clear opportunities that God places in front of them to follow up with people and help them become grounded in the Word of God and, or, grow in their new identity in Christ. It is good for people to hear the Gospel, but discipleship is an integral part of growth in the Christian life; and it can only come through long- term relationships.
Being a complete and healthy person means being able to grow and learn new things. Those that like Spontaneous Evangelism and those that like Relational Evangelism must learn from one another. Every single soul a person comes across requires a unique strategy. This is because everyone is at a different place in their journey towards Christ. Some people need to be presented with the Gospel, whereas others, have had people share the Gospel with them previously and now are at a point where they are open to committing to Christ and being discipled. Truly, it is not an issue of one vs. the other. Both will be required to properly reach the lost with the Gospel and for the American Church to begin to become more effective in the culture.
An analogy that fits very well with this topic is a soccer analogy. It is nearly impossible for someone on the total opposite end of the field to kick the ball and score a goal, especially with the defense and goalie. To score a goal, a team must kick the ball back and forth to each other all the way up the field to get the ball in the best position to score. Sometimes, one player has the ball for an extended time (Relational Evangelism). But generally, as the ball is moved up the field different players must quickly pass the ball off (Spontaneous Evangelism). For the individual that comes to saving faith in Christ and begins to spiritually grow, their life was certainly filled with many instances of both Spontaneous and Relational Evangelism.
In the day and age we are living in, God is calling believers to take serious the command to "preach the Gospel" and to "make disciples." This requires an openness to the Holy Spirit using us spontaneously and relationally throughout each of our days. Your effort to share the Gospel with a waiter or store clerk will move God's plan forward in their lives. Each time a believer shares the Gospel, there is an opportunity for a dramatic change to occur in the person being shared with. What seems to be a spontaneous encounter can even open up into the possibility of relationship and discipleship if you are willing to follow up.
So, when it comes to Christians fulfilling the Great Commission in this country, we need to be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to use us in certain situations spontaneously and in other situations relationally. Spontaneous Evangelism and Relational Evangelism should not be pitted against each other. The truth is that both are needed and required if we are going to be led by the Holy Spirit to fulfill His plan and purpose as we minister to those in our day to day lives.